Jewish Kiwi PM?
by: Dan Goldberg JTA - Last updated: 2008-10-31
Politician John Key
It may be known as the "Land of the Long White Cloud," but the forecast for New Zealand appears to be bright - at least for Israel and the small Kiwi Jewish community.
The major polls show that Prime Minister Helen Clark's Labor Party will likely lose the November 8 election to the National Party led by John Key, the son of an Austrian Jewish mother who escaped the Nazis in 1939.
If Key wins - it is possible he will receive the most votes but be unable to form a majority government - few if any Kiwi Jews or Israeli officials would likely mourn the defeat of Clark, who has been in power since 1999.
Many still point to the diplomatic meltdown sparked by the "passport affair" in 2004 when two apparent Mossad agents were caught trying to illegally obtain a Kiwi passport.
In the wake of the scandal, Clark suspended high-level relations for more than a year until Israel apologized.
Days later, vandals burned a prayer house to the ground at a Jewish cemetery in what was described as the worst anti-Semitic attack in Kiwi history. And in 2006, an arrest warrant for "war crimes" was issued for former Israeli army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, who was traveling in the country. It was later rescinded.
Despite Clark hosting a kosher dinner in parliament in September to acknowledge the contribution of the country's Jewish community, her era has been synonymous with the nadir of relations between Wellington and Jerusalem.
Key, 47, told Jewish news agency JTA that it was "understandable" that relations with Jerusalem were "a little bit strained" after the passport affair, but there was "no use in reliving it."
Clark has not visited Israel while in office, though her former foreign minister, Phil Goff, incensed then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 when he greeted Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Key in contrast, said he hopes to visit the Jewish state, where he has cousins. And he wants to pay tribute at Yad Vashem to those of his mother's family who did not survive the Holocaust.
It would be a poignant moment, he said. "I very much want to go there, in part because obviously I'm interested" and also "as a mark of respect for my mum."
Key's mother, Ruth Lazar, owed her life to her aunt, who arranged a marriage by convenience in Britain, enabling Ruth, her mother and grandmother to escape Austria on the eve of the war.
Key, who criticized Clark for not supporting the war against Iraq, said Israel and New Zealand have many similarities.
"We are small in nature and we are entrepreneurial, and Israel has achieved some amazing things in terms of its high-tech space," he said. "I think there's a lot New Zealand can learn from Israel."
Key and his two elder sisters were brought up in poverty in a government-run house, largely devoid of Judaism. He accrued his wealth in London, where he worked for Merrill Lynch before returning home in 2001 and embarking on his political career.
Key told JTA, "I am very respectful of the Jewish faith and in general I'm very respectful of religion, but I'm just not actively religious myself."
The president of New Zealand's Jewish Council, Stephen Goodman, said Key has "a Jewish identity even if he doesn't identify as Jewish."
But some Jewish leaders fear Key's roots may work against him because, as one put it, "There is a deep anti-Jewish, anti-Israel sentiment in New Zealand. If Kiwis know he's Jewish, he would need to prove that he is not biased toward Israel."
Mike Regan, the editor of the monthly New Zealand Jewish Chronicle, said Key "has almost become the pin-up boy for the Jewish community. He has been invited to speak at more Jewish functions in the last year than I can recall of any other politician."
Nathan Lawrence, the president of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand, believes a Key government would be more sympathetic to Israel.
"The current Labor Party has within its leadership several people that are ideologically fixated on certain positions, some of which mean an automatic disdain of Israel's policies," Lawrence said.
"There is likely to be greater balance" under Key," he said. "This will have little to do with Key's Jewish background, but more so the greater open-mindedness of the center-right parties to the realities of the world."
Key would be the nation's third prime minister of Jewish descent. Julius Vogel served in the 1870s and Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell, who later converted to Christianity, was at the helm for two weeks in 1925.